Who composed this strange
argument? It is longer and more complex than most of the sayings that can
be traced through oral tradition to Jesus. The rhetoric is what one might
expect from an urbane orator rather than a small-town sage. The central
motifs---characterizations of children, John the baptizer and the son of
man---are at odds with the development of these motifs elsewhere in the the
early Jesus tradition. So this passage did not muster consensus in the
Jesus Seminar as a saying that can reliably be traced to the lips of Jesus
Yet, if Jesus was not the source
of this saying, who was? The slurs at its center are not apt to have been
invented by some supporter of Jesus. Other gospel passages show that both
John and “the son of man” had opponents. But this saying is odd because
the speaker makes little attempt to salvage the reputation of either. If
this passage was created from nothing by some Christian, then why are the
critics’ charges not decisively refuted? If it is a mere literary
fiction, then why does it not fit the pattern of other recorded references
to John and “the son of man”?
The Greek text, for example, literally accuses John of having a “demon.”
This meant that his behavior was deemed irrational. Who would have invented
such a charge? Certainly not Matthew or Luke who represent John as God’s
herald for Jesus. Neither of these gospel writers would suggest that John
was under the influence of an alien spirit, if they had not found this
charge recorded in Q.
Nor was the compiler of Q apt
to have invented this criticism of John. For the lines that immediately
preceded this passage portray Jesus as the prime promoter of John’s
reputation. These sayings have Jesus insist, with glowing hyperbole, that
John is “more than a prophet” and “among those born of women, none is
greater than John” (Luke 7:26-28//Matt 11:9-11 excerpts). Even if such
exaggerations do not represent Jesus’ actual statements about the baptizer’s
historical status, the scribe who claimed Jesus said these things would not
likely have concocted the charge that John was demented. For, if it were
composed as a postscript, this flat contradiction of the effusive
commendation just ascribed to Jesus would challenge not only John’s sanity
but Jesus’ own sense of judgment.
The derogatory remark about
John’s mental stability not only must be older than the uniformly positive
press that the baptizer received elsewhere in Christian and Jewish texts, it
probably dates to his own lifetime. For after John’s death, it would take a
pretty petty person to judge him insane just for having abstained from
eating bread and drinking wine. In fact, after John was executed by Herod
Antipas, he was widely regarded as a martyred hero. The baptizer’s
reputation as a man of God became so widespread that even Josephus---an
aristocrat from Jerusalem---had only positive things to report about him in
this sketch that was drafted about the time that the gospels of Matthew and
Luke were being composed:
He was a good man. And to the
Jews he advocated training in virtue with both justice towards others and
piety towards God. Those who accepted this were to unite in baptism.
Baptism was favored by him for this reason: not to atone for sins committed
but to purify the body just as the soul had been already purified by
justice. When others who were quite stirred by his words joined him, Herod
(Antipas) feared that persuasiveness like his might lead some men to
dissidence. For they seemed to do anything John advised...So, (John) was
sent chained to Machaerus, because of Herod’s suspicion,...and he was slain
in that place. But it was believed by the Jews that God determined to
punish Herod by the destruction that befell his army [in 34
CE]. --- excerpted from
This report, like post-mortem
assessments of modern assassinated folk heroes, Martin Luther King or John
F. Kennedy, celebrates only favorable aspects of a person who admittedly was
the focus of social agitation when alive. This is normal, since the tragic
death of public figures often stifles the vicious caricatures their
opponents circulate freely during their lifetimes.
Before John was imprisoned,
however, even more conservative Jews than Herod would be apprehensive of the
unsettling effect of this social reformer’s rhetoric on the status quo.
Just as much of middle-class America felt threatened in the 1960’s by the
preaching of Martin Luther King on the one hand or the “flower-power”
message of the hippie counter-culture on the other, so secularized Jews who
prospered in a world dominated by Greek culture and Roman armies were bound
to take a dim view of John’s call for religious purification and a return to
the moral values of Israel’s more rustic past. Some Jews may have regarded
John’s retreat from civilized town-life to the wilderness area surrounding
the Jordan river as a sign that he was “more than a prophet”---perhaps even
the reincarnation of that legendary rural firebrand, Elijah, who nine
centuries earlier had launched a successful revolution against rulers who
ignored the principles of Mosaic law. But many others---landowners, shop
keepers, religious leaders, and especially parents whose idealistic children
were attracted to the baptizer’s brand of revival---were bound to judge
John’s call for total purification as pure social madness. Like any slur
the suggestion that John was mad is hardly an objective description but
someone’s emotional reaction to his social behavior. That negative opinion
is echoed here only because it was still fresh enough to have to be
discredited when this saying was composed.
Yet, it is safe to say that John was a model of total abstinence. For it
is not critics but John’s defender who here recalls that he shunned eating
and drinking. This characterization implies that the baptizer avoided not
only specific foods but secular comradery in general. For bread and wine
were the staples of ancient Mediterranean meals. Whether this saying
originally specified these elements (as in Luke) or not (as in Matthew),
John is here distinguished by his refusal to share the normal meal ritual
that was the focal point of fellowship in Jewish culture.
Meals, after all, are a time
not only for food but for conversation. The people with whom a
first-century Jew would break bread indicated the group to which he
belonged. Josephus, a self-proclaimed Pharisee, provides this outsider’s
account of the exclusive communal meal of the Essenes:
They assemble in a private room
where no one with other beliefs is allowed to come. Having cleansed
themselves as if they were entering some sacred area, they dine. When they
are seated in silence, the baker passes out the bread according to rank, and
the cook passes each one a portion from a single dish...Now, to those
outside the silence of those within seems like some awesome mystery. But it
is really because they are allotted just enough food and drink and so are
---excerpted from Jewish War 2.129-133
Though Pharisees were apparently
excluded from eating with Essenes, they too were known for caution about
what and where and with whom they ate. Akiba ben Joseph, a contemporary of
Josephus and the chief architect of later rabbinic Judaism, was credited
with this warning:
Don’t break bread with a
worldly priest, lest you trespass in what is holy...
Don’t get used to eating at banquets, lest you end by eating forbidden
---The Fathers of Rabbi Nathan 26.2
These passages show that meal
segregation in ancient Judaism was not just a matter of social snobbery. It
was a safeguard against contamination by alien ideas served up by one’s
table companions. Thus, in a culture that valued purity and temperance,
John the baptizer was recognized as the ultimate purist, though some
skeptics obviously objected that his complete withdrawal from ordinary meals
took social purification to a crazy extreme.
The real reason the author of
this Q saying recalled such criticism of John’s asceticism, however, was to
set up a sharp contrast with the critics’ more scathing reaction to the
behavior of someone else. While John was known for extreme standards of
sobriety and abstinence, another individual---identified here indirectly as
“the son of man”---obviously was not. John was so discriminating that he
would not share a casual meal with anyone. The speaker characterizes “the
son of man” as eating and drinking without any restrictions in either diet
or company. His lack of restraint was so obvious that critics called him “a
glutton and a drunk” and complained that he was intimate with “toll
collectors and sinners,” an obvious reference to irreligious riff-raff.
For first century religious
Jews these were even more lethal allegations than the claim that John was a
madman. After all, Israel’s history was filled with reformers who called
for a stricter enforcement of traditional social standards. The biblical
stories of Elijah and other prophets provided precedence for fanatical
opposition to moral laxness. But Judaic tradition provided no comfort for
those who were undisciplined and self-indulgent. Jewish sages regularly
advocated self-control and temperance with proverbs like this:
Listen, my son! Be wise and set
your heart on a straight path.
Don’t mix with those who drink wine or with those who eat lots of meat.
For drunkard and glutton become impoverished and rags clothe the lazy.
--- Proverbs 23:19-21
Gluttony and drunkenness, in
fact, became stock charges against Jews who deviated from the religious
discipline of their elders, as is evident in this stern warning that the
Torah ascribed to Moses:
If a person’s son is stubborn
and a rebel, who will not heed his father or his mother’s voice and will
not obey them even if they discipline him, his father and mother will take
him into custody and bring him in front of the (court of) elders at the gate
of his hometown. There they will tell those town elders: “This son of ours
is stubborn and a rebel. He won’t obey our voice. He’s a glutton and a
drunk!” Then all men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus will
you purge the evil from your midst. All Israel will hear about it and fear
--- Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (italics mine)
Even if such a harsh prescription against deviant behavior was not viable
in first century Judaism, this passage clearly shows that the label “glutton
and drunk” was one of the most socially damaging rumors that could be
circulated about any Jew.
What makes this slur even more shocking in a Christian text is that Jesus
is clearly the “son of man” who was the intended subject of this
allegation. “Son of man” was a stock Semitic idiom for any descendent of
the first human being. In Jewish scripture it is used by several authors in
a wide range of contexts from humbling observations to divine visions. But
in the gospels it is restricted to comments ascribed to Jesus, most of which
reflect upon himself.
True, not all son of man sayings are obviously genuine. Many echo these
exalted descriptions of a human agent of God from Judaic scripture:
What is a man that you should
pay attention to him,
a son of man that you should care for him?
You made him a little less than God
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler of your handiwork,
you put everything beneath his feet.
In the visions of night, as I
I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven.
He came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.
And to him was given authority and glory and kingship,
and every people, nation and language serve him.
--- Daniel 7:13-14
These texts invited later Jews
to speculate on the identity of the human figure whom God exalted above all
the rest of creation. So, any of Jesus’ supporters could easily have
composed sayings after his death that invoked this biblical imagery to refer
to the one whom they called “Lord.”
But given this tendency of early Christians to identify Jesus as an
idealized heavenly “son of man,” who would have described of him as “a
glutton and a drunk”? As in the case of John, this derogatory assessment of
Jesus’ eating habits clearly echoes a charge critics really leveled against
Jesus during his lifetime. Like the description of John as a madman, it is
an exaggerated reaction to current behavior that was considered excessive.
But there is a dramatic difference in the critics’ perception of the two
men. John was faulted for advocating an unreasonable standard of purity.
Jesus was criticized for an apparent complete lack of social
Not only was Jesus charged with violating normal limits of sobriety, he was
labeled “a crony of toll collectors and sinners.” This accusation makes
sense only on the lips of religious Jews. The term “sinner” could refer to
anyone who deviated from any moral or religious standard of a particular
sect. But when Jews used it as an amorphous characterization of a group, it
meant people who were generally non-religious, those who did not even
pretend to govern their lives by the laws of Moses: secular Jews and even
Gentiles. Moreover, since Jews were distinguished by the company they kept,
this complaint insinuates that Jesus was himself a sinner.
The charge that Jesus was a pal of toll collectors had even more sinister
connotations in first-century Palestine. A Jew with this reputation was
more likely to be ostracized than a Kentuckian labeled an accomplice of
“revenuers” in Appalachia. Imagine what it is like to live in a country
occupied by a foreign military dictatorship. Under these circumstances
tolls and other taxes are viewed not as necessary assessments for the upkeep
of the commonwealth, but as oppressive levies by a regime of slave masters.
Jews who collected tolls for the Herodians or Roman military were not known
for being particularly friendly or fair. In fact, rabbinic texts regularly
compare toll collectors to thieves. So, to be branded a pal of toll
collectors was to bear the stigma of an enemy agent at best and a hoodlum at
These caricatures are so
distorted that it is tempting to discard them as unreliable evidence of the
behavior of either Jesus or John. But they certainly provide a clear
picture of the type of heated negative reaction that both men evoked from
some contemporaries. Such alternative perspectives are important to put the
gospels’ overwhelmingly positive assessment of Jesus in proper historical
balance. Moreover, the juxtaposition of these slurs keeps Jesus’ social
agenda from becoming confused with John’s. While John insisted on
tightening the standards of religious and social exclusiveness, Jesus was
obviously faulted for being too lax. This impression that Jesus’ lifestyle
differed radically from John’s is certainly historically accurate. The only
question is whether this saying is a reliable example of Jesus’ own reaction
to his critics. You may doubt it. But just compare this passage with the
way that the synoptic gospels handle similar complaints about Jesus’ lack of
social discrimination elsewhere.
Mark portrays startled
Pharisees as posing this question to Jesus’ disciples:
What’s he doing eating with toll collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16d).
There is no suggestion here that
Jesus himself is guilty of social excess. Unlike the slurs in Q, he is
neither called a “glutton and a drunk” nor a “crony” (philos) of
irreligious types. Yet, to counter any suspicion that Jesus might have been
contaminated by his worldly dinner companions, Mark reports this retort:
“Since when do the able-bodied need a doctor?
It’s the sick who do” (Mark 2:17cd).
In such a context, this ironic
question interprets Jesus’ contact with outcastes as a heroic attempt to
restore them to society and preserve communal health. For physicians treat
the infected, not just to save the lives of individual invalids, but to
prevent viruses from spreading.
Luke uses a similar tactic in reporting complaints about Jesus’
association with social outcastes in another context. Here Pharisees are
joined by scholars in complaining:
“This fellow welcomes sinners and even eats with them!” (Luke 15:2b).
But in introducing this
complaint, Luke is careful to point out that these people were attracted to
Jesus and not vice-versa. Moreover, in order to explain why Jesus does not
reject them, Luke appends three parables to justify rejoicing when the lost
are found or a wayward son returns.
Compared with these obvious
attempts on the part of the authors of the synoptic gospels to disassociate
Jesus from the errant behavior of some of his worldly companions, the
handling of the accusations in this Q saying becomes all the more amazing.
Not only is Jesus himself branded as an accomplice of intemperate types,
there is no obvious attempt to dismiss the terms of this indictment.
Instead the speaker seeks to undermine the charges against Jesus merely by
appending them to the critics’ previous assessment of John. By reminding
the critics of their own words (“you say”) the author of this saying points
out an apparent inconsistency in their complaints. They censored John for
not eating and drinking, now they censor Jesus for doing just that. This
tactic puts the critics in a position of having to defend their own position
without producing evidence to contradict their charges.
Moreover, in exposing the
pettiness of the critics’ name-calling the speaker does not himself fall
into the trap of issuing counter-accusations. Instead, to help them
recognize the ridiculousness of their own position, their vicious invective
is introduced by an analogy to the petty complaints of gangs of bored
children throwing taunts at each other. If Jesus were a nineteenth century
Romantic who thought children were perfect, then this pejorative picture of
infantile behavior might be reason to doubt that this analogy could have
been composed by him. But it is quite consistent with the very realistic
picture of sibling rivalry sketched in the parable of the prodigal son. If
Jesus’ signature on the one portrait is deemed genuine, then why not the
This saying is a perfect illustration of a muted but effective way of
countering hostility. If it attempted to whitewash the reputations
of Jesus and John or if it branded their critics as phonies or liars,
then there would be good reason to suspect that the author was someone other
than the sage who reminded himself to remove the timber from his own eye,
before trying to extract a splinter from his brother’s. But that is not the
case here. Instead of attacking the enemy, the speaker simply lets them see
their own flaws in a mirror. In comparing his critics’ behavior to that of
petulant children, he does not adopt the condescending viewpoint of an
adult. Rather he ends simply by insisting: “Wisdom is vindicated by all
her children.” This is a radically inclusive assertion that embraces not
only Jesus, John and their cronies but the “children” who called them
names. Matthew’s version (“Wisdom is vindicated by all her deeds”)
misses this point.
At first glance the conclusion to this passage is as startling bland as
it is abrupt. It is the type of sentiment that any Mediterranean sage might
endorse. From Socrates on, Greek sages did not presume to call themselves
wisemen (sophoi) but rather “lovers”---or, to keep the translation
consistent, “cronies”---of wisdom (philo sophoi). Wisdom (sophia)
was not viewed as the private property of any individual but rather as a
transcendent power to which any rational person had access. Since the word
for wisdom was feminine in Hebrew (as in Greek), even earlier Judaic sages
developed a mythic image of wisdom as a female pedagogue in passages like
Doesn’t Wisdom summon and
Understanding raise her voice?...
“I summon you humans! My voice is for you sons of man:
You who are simple, get smart! You who are stupid, get some sense!...
Now, children, listen to me!
The one who keeps my ways is to be congratulated.
Wise up! Heed instruction and don’t reject it.”
Since Jewish sages normally equated the ways of wisdom with sobriety, some
who were wise in their own eyes labeled Jesus as “a glutton and drunk” to
infer that his ways were folly. But a classic Judaic text also portrayed
wisdom as a hostess summoning guests to a banquet:
'Come, eat of my bread and
drink of the wine I have mixed."
To be sure, the meal language
here was meant to be a metaphor for mental digestion. But at least one
Judaic sage before Jesus concluded that eating and drinking per se
were the marks of a sage:
There is nothing better for a
human (Adam) than to eat and drink
and to make oneself see good in one’s work.
I saw that this too was from God’s hand.
For who can eat and drink without him?
Thus, the conclusion of this Q passage has more substance than is first
apparent. The claim that wisdom is upheld by all her children is a
reminder to self-confident critics that truth is not the private possession
of any school but can embrace even conflicting lifestyles: those who abstain
and those who don’t, those who refuse to dance and those who refuse to
mourn. As an affirmation of intellectual and social tolerance, this
aphorism is the quintessential leveler between all self-styled sages.
Moreover, the speaker who states this as an absolute principle is also
reminding himself not to confuse his position with truth itself. Confronted
with members of a rival gang who are all too ready to insult him and others,
he simply highlights the irony of the situation, then throws up his hands
proclaiming: “wisdom will out!” If this is not the voice of the Galilean
sage who said “love your enemies,” it is surely a good impersonation.